I’m not sure where I first heard of the “Campsite Theory of Relationships”. Probably in an advice column somewhere. Maybe several. The idea is that, with each relationship, you should try to leave the other person better off than when you found them, just as you should do with a campsite. I’ve certainly tried to do this, but it’s always difficult to know if you’ve succeeded. On the other hand, I can say with certainty that the women in my life definitely have. College Sweetheart took me to innumerable plays and broadway shows, discovered my favorite songwriter, and convinced me to move to New York City. Current Girlfriend (who will get a cooler pseudonym in future posts) has introduced me to several music groups that I now wonder how I lived without. She’s joined me in exploring the various sights, sounds, activities and tastes of this city (and has found a way to do it on the cheap). And she has introduced me to Hammer Films.
Oh, I’d seen a few before, of course. How could a movie hound like myself avoid seeing at least a few Hammer films, at least by accident? Theatre of Blood was a particular favorite of mine. But I’d never really dug into the world of Lee, Cushing and Price. As you can imagine, it’s been a pleasure.
But no one bats a thousand, and even a famous cheese-house like Hammer, renowned for the so-bad-it’s-good masterpieces that they cranked out by the month and loved for the same, sometimes produces a turkey that is simply so-bad-it’s-bad. Probably often, really, but such flops are generally long-forgotten, lost in the glorious cheesy shadow of Lee’s Dracula, Cushing’s Frankenstein, and Price’s Phibes. And justly so.
One such rightfully forgotten flop is 1958’s The Snorkel, which I happened to watch with CG as part of a Neflix double feature with the marginally-better Maniac.
Yes. The Snorkel. Someone actually tried to make the word “snorkel” sound intimidating. The fail touches every aspect of this sad production.
The premise of the movie isn’t bad. In the opening scene, Paul Decker murders his wife by drugging her, sealing up the room in which they sit, and turning on the gas. He himself puts on a diving mask and uses rubber tubes to attach the snorkels to vent-pipes that lead to the open air, like so:
Come morning, he uses a trapdoor to hide under the floorboards, waits out the discovery and investigation, then escapes while no one’s looking. His wife’s death could be nothing but a suicide.
Unfortunately for him, his stepdaughter Candy doesn’t believe it for a second. She witnessed the death of her biological father, and though no one believes her, she knows that it was murder (also done by Paul. Apparently, he killed “Daddy” to net himself a rich wife, and has now killed “Mummy” because he has the hots for the babysitter). If nothing else, Mummy would have left a letter if she was going to commit suicide. Besides, why would she commit suicide by gas when she’d previously been terrified of dying such a death accidentally?
It’s all a setup for what could be a clever, suspenseful thriller – a cat and mouse game between a killer with a unique trick and absolute control over the situation, and a young girl with nothing but her certainty.
What it actually turns into is “You Have To Believe Me!” The Movie. You know that annoying-as-hell moment when a character goes to some authority figure for help, the authority figure refuses to take their concerns seriously (usually for no good reason), and the character whines “You have to believe me!” instead of presenting any arguments or evidence? Yeah. That’s this whole movie. By the time we get to the last twenty minutes or so and Candy starts making convincing arguments (“Why would Mummy commit suicide by gas if she was so afraid of dying that way?”), she’s already thrown enough temper tantrums, made enough wild accusations, and said “you have to believe me” enough times that I wouldn’t believe her either, and I know Paul did it.
Maybe all of that could be bearable if it weren’t for the character of Candy herself. This movie was based on a short story, and I suspect that Candy was much younger in the story than the movie. Although the movie poster refers to Candy as a teenager (the actress was 14 at the time), she acts, and is treated by the other characters, as if she was much younger. Maybe six.
Babysitter/Governess/Whatever: “She’s just a little girl.”
She’s not that much younger than you!
Trailer narration: “The best child performance since The Bad Seed.”
Child? She has tits! Visible tits! If you want to take advantage of her nubility with that clingy Fifties top and that bathing suit, you don’t get to call her a child!
When she figures out how Paul committed the murder, she sings a little song to tease him about it. Then she goes for a little swim, knowing full well that drowning is Paul’s second-favorite method of murder. I thought she might be setting some kind of trap, but no, she really was just that stupid. She asks for ice cream for dinner. She constantly whines about Mummy and Daddy, not because she’s reverting in shock, but because she’s a six-year-old in a visibly much older body. She talks in a high, breathy, whiny little-girl’s voice that sounds all wrong coming from someone who is (I must emphasize here) visibly post-pubescent. She’s unbearable. CG and I almost turned it off at numerous points, but we were just so sure that a Hammer Film (which we had translated in our heads into “classic” – won’t make that mistake again) had to pull it together at some point.
Which brings us to the end, and the first real spoiler.
Still here? Okay.
Since Candy has made it abundantly clear to Paul that a) she will never let up in her obsession and b) she’s actually getting pretty close, he decides to kill her. He lures her into the same death trap that he used to kill her mother, but they are interrupted and he hides in his usual place under the floorboards. Candy’s rescuers humor her one last time by searching the room for Paul, during which time they move a heavy cabinet over Paul’s trap door. As they leave, Candy – having promised to never speak of the matter again – runs back for one last look. When she gets back to the room where her mother died, Paul calls out to her, begging her to get the others and rescue him. Instead, Candy says “this is all just my imagination”, turns, and walks out the door, leaving him to die in his little coffin beneath the floorboards.
There is not a doubt in my mind that the story ended right there. Not one. It’s perfect. It’s what everything in the story up to that point has been leading up to.
But because this is the Fifties, and the idea of a teenage (or six-year-old, whatever) girl committing cold-blooded murder, especially by as cruel a method as leaving a man to die of thirst (after all, he’s not going to suffocate) is just too harsh, Candy has second thoughts and stops by the police station to tell them where Paul can be found. Then she rides off into the sunset, heedless of the fact that they’re going to need her to turn around and come right back to act as a witness. The end.
I’ve seen similar cop-outs many times when dealing with the “horror” films of the Fifties and before…and, to be fair, much of the Sixties as well. Small wonder the horror of the Seventies was so dark and bleak in reaction. Sometimes the movie was good enough that the “uplifting” coda draws a mere roll of the eyes, the overall experience being more than worth it (here I’m thinking of Night of the Hunter and Day of the Triffids), but not in this case. I can’t recommend strongly enough: stay away from this deathly dull whinefest.
Let it stay forgotten.
Update: well, color me embarrassed. Upon reading this, CG pointed out to me that the Dr. Phibes movies were American International, not Hammer. In fact, I’m not sure if Vincent Price ever worked for Hammer. I think I was fooled by the similarity of the vaguely European-ish, circa 18th-19th century settings of Lee’s Dracula movies, Cushing’s Frankenstein series, and Price’s Poe pictures, and just extrapolated from there.